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 Phthalates in Commerce and Human Exposure Minimize


Phthalates are Widely Used but Safer Alternatives are Available and Affordable

Phthalates are routinely added to hundreds of everyday products and building materials found in the home. This large class of industrial petrochemicals all share a similar chemical structure as esters of phthalic acid. ExxonMobil Chemical Company, BASF Corporation and Eastman Chemical Company are among the largest manufacturers of phthalates.

About 90 percent of phthalates are added to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) as plasticizers to make the plastic soft and flexible. Vinyl plastic is widely used in everyday products. Phthalates are also added to plastisols used to make shiny colored prints on children’s clothing and to other plastics, adhesives, caulking, coatings and many other common materials. Diethyl phthalate (DEP) is a common ingredient in the chemical soup called "fragrance" on the labels of many cosmetics and personal care products.

Phthalates can be found in the following products around the home:


Safer alternatives to phthalates, and to vinyl products in general, are widely available. See the "Additional Resources" section on page 15 of our report for documentation on safer substitutes.

The Most Vulnerable Among Us Face the Highest Phthalate Exposure

Widespread use of phthalates exposes virtually everyone, but children, women, people of color, low-income people and workers face the highest levels of exposure. Children have higher levels of phthalates in their bodies than adults, and women are exposed more than men, according to ten years of biomonitoring results from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Phthalates readily escape from products into household dust and the air in our homes, schools, child-care centers, offices and cars. Phthalates enter our bodies through breathing, eating and skin contact, including from frequent hand-tomouth activity and teething by toddlers. Contamination of the food supply may be a major source of phthalate exposure.[30] Phthalates have been measured in breast milk, umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid, blood and urine, as well as in household dust and indoor air. Phthalates in a pregnant woman cross the placenta and expose the developing fetus. Because of their small size, children are exposed to higher concentrations of phthalates pound for pound than adults.

The CDC cautions that the measurement of detectable levels of phthalates in human bodies does not imply that they cause an adverse health effect. However, dozens of human health studies now show increasing rates of serious disability and disease as phthalate exposure increases. Many scientists say there’s no safe level of exposure to phthalates because the body responds to extremely tiny doses of hormones and people vary widely in susceptibility.[31]



30 Schecter A, Lorber M, Guo Y, Wu Q, Yun SH, Kannan K, Hommel M, Imran N, Hynan LS, Cheng D, Colacino SA, Birnbaum LS. 2013. Phthalate Concentrations and Dietary Exposure from Food Purchased in New York. Environ Health Perspect 121:473-479. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1206367>.

31 W. V. Welshons et al. (2003), “Large Effects from Small Exposures. I. Mechanisms for Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals with Estrogenic Activity,” Environmental Health Perspectives 111(8): 994-1006,<http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1241550/>.


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